Abe's shrine visit raises risk of conflict: analysts

Abe's shrine visit raises risk of conflict: analysts
Topshotsa Shinto priest (R) leads Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) as he visits the controversial Yasukuni war shrine

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's inflammatory visit to a Tokyo war shrine demonstrates his determination to drag pacifist Japan to the right and nudges Northeast Asia a significant step closer to conflict, analysts say.

Already-frayed ties in the region will be further damaged by what Abe claimed was a pledge against war, but what one-time victims of Japan's aggression see as a glorification of past militarism.

Abe's forthright views on history - he has previously questioned the definition of "invade" in relation to Japan's military adventurism last century - have raised fears over the direction he wants to take officially-pacifist Japan.

"His ultimate goal is to revise the (pacifist) constitution," said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. He is "arrogant and running out of control".

After a creditable performance in getting Japan's chronically under-performing economy back on track that has kept his poll numbers respectable, Abe is now spending his political capital pursuing pet nationalist issues.

He sent shockwaves around the region when he went to pray at Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, the anniversary of his coming to power and just days after approving the second consecutive annual budget rise for Japan's military.

Partly, the money will be used to buy stealth fighters and amphibious vehicles intended to boost Japan's ability to defend remote islands, the government said, citing fears over Beijing's behaviour in a row over the sovereignty of an East China Sea archipelago.

Ed Griffith, a specialist in Sino-Japanese at Britain's Leeds University, says the calcified positions on the islands led Abe to conclude he had nothing to lose by visiting the shrine.

"Abe has always wanted to pay a visit to the shrine as prime minister, but the threat of ruining Japan's relationship with China has previously been enough to keep him away," he told AFP.

"However, with the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands taking the relationship to its lowest point since 1945, he clearly no longer sees that as an impediment."

After months-long jostling by paramilitary boats and planes, relations deteriorated further when China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea in November, including the airspace above the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyus.

Beijing says that the islands have been its territory for hundreds of years and were snatched by Japan in the opening stages of its empire-building romp, which culminated in the brutal subjugation of swathes of China.

Like Yasukuni, they stand as a symbol in Chinese eyes of Japan's unrepentant militarism, and as a proxy among the Japanese Right for righteous nationalism.

China's press on Friday called for "excessive" counter-measures after the shrine visit.

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